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A Firm Foundation
For Yale undergraduates, volunteering in the New Haven community has become as commonplace as playing intramural sports—or complaining about dining hall food. Some 3,300 Yale College students take part in community work every year, according to the University’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, many of them in various teaching and tutoring programs for New Haven schoolchildren.
But Eugene Van Voorhis '55, ‘58LLB remembers when things were different. When Van Voorhis came to Yale from Hotchkiss in 1951, reaching out to New Haven “wasn’t the 'shoe' thing to do,” he recalls. Undaunted, Van Voorhis started a group to tutor middle school-aged African American students with an eye toward getting them admitted into elite boarding schools at a time when African American applicants were virtually unheard of in such places. Two years later, he incorporated his venture as the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation.
Nearly half a century later, the Grant Foundation is still putting undergraduates in front of classes full of bright New Haven schoolchildren in order to help supplement their public school educations and jump-start their love of learning. But Grant hasn’t stayed in business by standing still. The organization has changed its curriculum, its student body, its structure, and, to some degree, its mission in response to changes at Yale, in the community, and in the nation. While there have been bumps in the road and struggles with continuity—as in any organization run by an ever-changing cast of students—Grant has survived, through creative adaptation, to become the elder statesman of Yale’s educational outreach programs. And as it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in the spring with a dinner and other events for Grant alumni, the organization has strengthened its board of directors to insure that, as board member Claudia Merson puts it, “the student teachers are given the professional backup and support they need.”
Each summer, Grant offers a six-week program to 50 or 60 high-achieving, mostly low-income students in New Haven schools, grades six through nine. The students take courses in English and math in addition to electives ranging from Chinese to “Chemistry in the Kitchen.” Mornings are spent in the classroom, and afternoons are taken up with clubs (such as basketball, arts and crafts, and cooking), field trips, and other activities. In all the classes, the emphasis is on creative approaches to problem-solving. “It’s summer and it’s not air-conditioned,” says director Shawn Fields '03, “so if you’re just doing math problems you’re not going to get through to them.”
Still, a Grant curriculum that includes “The Poetry of Hip-Hop” is a far cry from the program—complete with Latin grammar—that its founder put in place in 1953. Van Voorhis, a native of Rochester, New York, came to Yale with a family tradition that was “very much Republican and pro-civil rights.” (His great-grandfather had been a counsel to Frederick Douglass.) In his freshman year, he joined the Yale-Dixwell Interracial Group, a Dwight Hall organization that brought together Yale students and people from the Dixwell neighborhood. As Van Voorhis recalls it, “There were some students in YDIG that were very left-wing. They were constantly yakking about sending telegrams off to Governor Dewey or President Truman. Instead of shaking their fists and screaming, I thought we should do something to address the inequities in our society.” Through his YDIG community connections, Van Voorhis identified two African American boys who could use some tutoring. With classmates Charles Roraback, George Allen, and John Lander as the first teachers, Van Voorhis set out to bring the boys up to speed in English, math, and Latin so that they could attend boarding schools on scholarships—escaping what he saw as a seriously flawed public school system. “The initial idea I had was that these boys should be removed from their environment and put into one where the peer group pressure was toward college, not dropping out,” says Van Voorhis.
The program soon expanded to five boys, who attended classes every weekday afternoon during the school year. After two years of tutoring, the first “graduate,” Barry Loncke, was admitted to Hotchkiss. Four years later, he was admitted to Yale College in the Class of 1962; he is now a Superior Court judge in Sacramento, California.
In 1953, Van Voorhis, a junior, turned the tutoring program into an incorporated nonprofit organization that he named the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation. The name was chosen in part because of Grant’s role in winning the Civil War and ratifying the 14th and 15th Amendments and in part because Grant was a distant cousin of Van Voorhis’s grandfather. (The name has sometimes been a stumbling block at fund-raising time, as many people assume the Foundation is the beneficiary of a large “U.S. grant.”)
Van Voorhis ran Grant for five years, until he finished Yale Law School in 1958. By then, he had in place a board of directors to insure continuity as undergraduate teachers and directors came and went. Director of athletics Delaney Kiphuth and University Chaplain Sidney Lovett were especially instrumental in watching over Grant in the years after Van Voorhis’s departure.
Grant didn’t change much until the 1960s, when Yale’s sense of social activism was awakened and new federal money became available as part of the War on Poverty. As undergraduate director for two years, Jonathan Fanton '65 presided over sweeping changes in the program. The summer program was introduced, a “dual-track” curriculum was devised so that students who did not intend to go away to boarding school could benefit from Grant’s attention throughout their high school years, and the student body was expanded in number and broadened to include girls and non-African American students. As federal work-study funds became available, Grant teachers—who had been volunteers up to then—were paid for their efforts. And for a time, the program had a full-time, salaried director.
Meanwhile, a number of other “compensatory” programs for minority students began to pop up on the Yale campus. There was the Yale Summer High School, for needy students from around the country; the Transitional Year Program, which gave minority high school graduates a year of preparation to help them gain admission to colleges; and the Intensive Summer Studies Program, a Yale-Harvard-Columbia joint effort to help prepare students at historically black colleges for admission to graduate school. “So U.S. Grant, the oldest of them all, eventually became part of a cluster of programs with similar ideals,” says Fanton, who is now president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Eventually, in the 1970s, the other programs disappeared as federal funding dried up, but Grant continued, although reduced in size and scope. Among other changes, the past 25 years have brought a different pedagogical approach to the program—reflecting, says board member and former director Oliver Barton '85, ‘94MES, changes in educational theory that eventually filter down to Yale undergraduates. “For at least 20 years we’ve tried to take a progressive, reform approach, with an emphasis on problem-solving” says Barton. “It’s a way of taking advantage of our small class sizes.” (There are four to eight students in each class.)
More recently, Grant has had to rethink its term-time program, which had become less well attended because many public schools now have their own extended-day programs. Last year, Grant suspended its twice-a-week term-time classes, opting instead to offer tutoring services by Grant teachers to students from the summer program. At the same time, the Grant board of directors has reorganized itself recently and has resolved to play a larger role in the administrative operation of the program.
“We needed to make it easier for the students to nail down the logistics so they can concentrate more time on teaching and learning,” says board chair and former Grant teacher Christiana Soares ’93, ’99MES.
One of the board’s objectives was to strengthen the training that the undergraduate teachers get before they enter the classroom. With the help of board members contributing their expertise and with consultation from Jonathan Gillette, who directs Yale’s Teacher Preparation Program, the four-day training period is, in Gillette’s words “a little more thoughtful” than in the past.
Chief among the non-academic issues to be sorted out was the use of University space in the summer. In the past, when Grant was one of Yale’s few summer programs, this had not been an issue. Teachers lived and taught on the Old Campus. But now that Yale has a number of its own summer programs and rents out space to revenue-producing outside programs, Grant no longer has the run of the place. To solve the space crunch, the University arranged for the Grant office, formerly in Bingham Hall, to relocate to 305 Crown Street; classes are held in the Afro-American Cultural Center. To replace the on-campus housing for teachers that previously had been provided, the Office of New Haven Affairs reimburses Grant for staff housing rentals—last summer, the teachers lived in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house.
Finding a way to house the teachers together is crucial, since part of the Grant experience for teachers has always been the opportunity to live and work together, sharing ideas about teaching and learning both on and off duty. “We’re all good friends,” says director Shawn Fields. “The reason everybody lives together is to bounce ideas off each other.” Adds math teacher Emily Isaak '04, “Sometimes we go out on Saturday night together, to the movies or somewhere, and all we can talk about are the kids.”
Each year, a few dozen students apply for the ten Grant teaching positions. Some have a vocational interest in teaching, others are eager to give back to the community, and some are just looking for an interesting summer job. Christiana Soares says she was planning to be a geneticist, but that “Grant, not the lab, was what I wanted to do all day.” She went on to the Teach for America program after graduation and is an environmental educator today.
Soares is one of many Grant alumni who have gone on to careers in education and public service. Oliver Barton stayed on in New Haven, where he helped found Common Ground High School, an ecologically-themed charter school. Sarah Kass '88, a former Grant director, founded the City on a Hill Charter School in Boston.
Among former students, perhaps the most prominent is Flemming Norcott Jr., a Grant alumnus from Van Voorhis’s day who is now a justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. “Grant was the fork in the road of my life,” says Norcott, who adds that things might have turned out differently if he had his way when he was 11. “I loved sports, and after school we'd grab a couple of guys and go play football. The last thing I wanted to do after school was study Latin, algebra, and English composition until 6 o'clock. So I told my mother I was going to quit, and she said that was fine, but that I would have to tell Mr. Van Voorhis myself and tell him why. All of us were scared to death of Gene, and she knew there was no way I could tell him. So I stayed with it for two years.” Norcott, who became only the second African American to attend the Taft School, went on to Columbia and Columbia Law School.
Janna Wagner '95, who recently joined the Grant board, was a Grant student in the 1980s. She credits the experience with helping her get to Yale after attending Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven. “I have vivid memories of my writing teacher, who wrote beautiful comments in my writing journal,” says Wagner. “She made my work feel important and in turn made me feel important. I don’t know if I’d ever had a teacher do that. Grant made me able to see that Yale or something like it was possible for me.” Wagner recently returned to New Haven as a cofounder of All Our Kin, a nonprofit group that trains women on public assistance and other low-income women to become day care providers while working with their own children.
As a new board member, Wagner recognizes that Grant must continue to evolve. “Grant used to be the only thing out there for bright, motivated kids, but the landscape is changing,” she says. “Thankfully, there are many other enriching learning opportunities out there, so it’s harder to attract the best counselors, and it’s harder to get the best students. Grant will continue to change, but the core of its mission remains the same: providing opportunities for gifted kids who wouldn’t have them otherwise.”
Founder Van Voorhis agrees that change has been necessary for Grant’s continued existence, but for him the central point is the relationship between Yale and New Haven students. Remembering a time when public school counselors chided him for encouraging African American students who were “never going to do more than pump gas,” Van Voorhis tells with relish of the time he came back for a Grant anniversary recently and met an African American woman who was a Grant teacher. “She was about to graduate from Yale,” he recalls. “I asked her what she was planning to do, half expecting her to say social work or teaching. She smiled and said she had accepted a job as a securities analyst at Goldman Sachs. That’s when I knew we had won.”
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